Istanbul '09 Workshop

The Afghan Conflict: A Perspective from Pakistan

Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon
Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations

Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon


I want to emphasize that the war in Afghanistan is not a little matter of turf in the backyard of Europe or Asia. The conflict started off as a collateral Arabian problem in Africa and travelled to the wilds of Afghanistan based on a power vacuum left by the retreating superpowers of the era, touching off the brutal 30-year war that is currently underway. This is a conflict similar to the Thirty Years’ War in Europe in the 17th Century that crippled the continent for decades. It can also be seen as a corollary to the 10-year war in Iraq which brought the mighty economy of the United States, including Wall Street, to its feet. Most devastatingly, however, it has resulted in 30 years of leaving the burden on just two countries to deal with a situation that is neither national nor regional in outlook.

Afghanistan has come to its present state after long wars, deep turmoil, and the crippling of its natural economy: Forty years ago, it was a bright, prosperous country that had great potential. Pakistanis used to holiday there often. In fact, we along with other investors, built the Intercontinental Kabul as an investment in Afghanistan because it was such a great place to go. Today of course, not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan—which was self-sufficient in all of its needs prior to the Afghan War—are in deep economic deficit.


I have been able to have in-depth conversations with people who have now become pillars of the system that created the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other such organizations. Their quest is to find the right staging post to take on the world. In fact, they have already done so and they brag about it. They brag about how they can hurt you in Madrid. They brag about how they can hurt you in Africa. They brag about how they can hurt you in Lebanon. They even brag that they can hurt you more than the Japanese were able to during the Second World War in the Pacific. They have taken on the Atlantic and, by virtue, NATO. So I warn you: Do not view this as a limited or a regional move. This is a move for world supremacy, no matter how absurd it might appear to all of you living in western society.

You are dealing with an implacable foe. These people try to hide themselves like a cancer. They can remain undetected for long periods of time because they take over the muscle or bone that they are in fact destroying and try to confuse anyone who tries to counter them. This is exactly what has happened. The insurgents have adopted a guise under which they attempt to convince people to buy into their vision of how the world should be, claiming certain moral reasons for the things they do. If you try to enter into any type of dialogue with them, they promptly say, “Ah, but the books you read are Anglo-Saxon or European. They are not the books that we were brought up on and are incorrect records of history.” They are a Trotsky-like nihilist force who aim to destruct everything that does not fit their idea of how the world should work. Unfortunately, history has shown that when a civilization is threatened, it is often by forces which are considered to be diminished or that do not have the wherewithal and the finances to sustain such an attack. If you read the annals of Rome, Greece, or other civilizations, this is what happens every time.

In Afghanistan there has been a more than 40% increase in incidents over the past year and in Pakistan some major districts of the northwest and frontier have fallen to the Taliban one by one. In addition, the sense of alienation and the grievances experienced by a major section of the Afghan population have led to hostility and insurgency.

Due to the lack of essentials and the absence of credible security in Afghanistan, the situation is severe. One obvious reminder of this is that there are still approximately 3 million Afghans living in Pakistan that are afraid of going back. In the city of Karachi alone, we have roughly tabulated 2 million of them.


Military Successes. However, with the troop surge in Afghanistan and the strong offensive which has taken place in Pakistan recently, the international and regional powers are holding off the enemy. This year is considered to be crucial for the Taliban from a strategic standpoint, so these successes are particularly significant.

Strong U.S. Involvement. The Obama Administration’s new strategy, which is under constant review, has also brought hope and promise. This is the first time we are taking this on a more dynamic basis and it is a good idea. Of course, it is founded on the belief that we can negotiate with the insurgency. Let me assure you that these are not people who will see reason; they will take the opportunity to keep you engaged but it will not in fact produce results. However, the U.S. expression of a long-term interest in the region is very important. In addition, the acknowledgement that abandoning these regions in the past was a mistake is also important.

Increased Cooperation, Including Improved Pakistani-Afghan Relations. The Pakistani government has worked to cultivate a closer relationship with the Karzai government in Afghanistan over the past year. I am very glad to see that both sides agree that it is important for us to cooperate and that the Kabul government has reciprocated our efforts towards this end; it is not tangible for Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry on the way we have been. This has now led to better thinking, more appropriate functioning, and of course clarity of command between Islamabad and Kabul.

There have also been improvements in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and neighboring countries due to the Regional Economic Cooperation on Construction of Afghanistan (RECCA). We have met many times under this aegis and are creating joint strategies to fulfill our common destiny. We have also been engaged in trilateral summits, including with Turkey, Iran, and Russia, at various times. These summits are producing consensus and results.

As a result of all these efforts, the Taliban are being routed for the first time in years. In order to be successful in Afghanistan, the world must work in tandem. We must apply the motto of the musketeers: “All for one and one for all.” Otherwise, the conflict will likely culminate with one side or the other wiping itself out. While this might not be imminent, this is what each side would like to see happen.


A Better Understanding of the Insurgency. The legal implications and aspects have not been fully considered. For example, in the United Nations today, we are just starting to realize that the insurgents in Afghanistan are not people who operate within the ambut of any law. When you speak to the insurgents of the Geneva Convention, they are not aware that it even exists. We must understand this. They do what they wish with impunity and have no commitment to civilization.

The Importance of Ownership. Another necessity is to promote a sense of ownership in Afghanistan with regards to the conflict. It is the Afghan community that truly needs to win in Afghanistan. In fact, this is the most important aspect. The Afghan people need to become convinced of the need to take action and that it is their rights which are being violated.

In Pakistan we had a similar situation. At first, Pakistanis thought, “Oh, the war with the Taliban is an American war.” Then the Taliban started slitting Pakistani throats, killing innocents by the thousands, and bombing the country, and we realized that it was no longer an outside war. However, we had to feel that sense of ownership in order to be catalyzed into stepping up and countering the Taliban. One advantage that we had in Pakistan was a viable army of over one million strong. This is considerable, especially with some amount of international support. If we see ourselves as immune to the situation and do not address it earnestly and urgently, no country in the region or in the world, not even America or any of the European nations, will be able to contain the impact and consequences of a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan. I say this because, in our part of the world, we feel that, within NATO, there is an aspect of fatigue.


The need for a regional approach is a nice catchphrase. It has worked in many ways thus far. It should bring solid stakes to all sides and lasting peace. However, its specifics need to be clear. For this, the divergence of strategic perceptions has to be addressed and gaps in trust between the countries involved need to filled. Any strategy for the region should have an objective understanding of the countries’ perspectives and sensitivities and must take their legitimate security interests into account. Removing the trust deficit is essential for smooth and continued cooperation. If we cannot do so, the countries involved are more likely to say ‘no’ to matters which need to be clarified rather than put aside.

In addition, the dialogue process between Pakistan and India is very important; we must keep talking and never break off talks. The region is not going to see peace if India and Pakistan do not work together.


A comprehensive approach as recommended by Ambassador Tanin is absolutely the right strategy. A military solution by itself is not going to be the answer. The notion that reliance on military means cannot deliver peace has predominantly been accepted internationally. However, one aspect that is still being debated is what is a good Taliban and what is a bad Taliban. There is no such thing; there are only Taliban. In addition, the shifting of blame for failure, which we have been practicing for a long time, must be avoided. This is counter-productive.

Lastly, benchmarks for progress must be people-centric rather than power-centric. Improvement can best be measured by seeing the people of Afghanistan living normal lives again in the country. Normalcy will only reappear when people once again inhabit the regions they used to inhabit. The recent U.N. Secretary General’s report to the Security Council treats this topic in detail and is available on the internet.


Of course, there has been a policy shift in Afghanistan; the new appointment of the U.S. Command in Afghanistan is indicative of this. However, a much bigger surge is needed in civilian development. The investment which European and other countries have promised time and again has not really materialized and it needs to. This is crucial in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to bring back some sort of normalcy and to mitigate the level of poverty by providing a way for the people to go back to their traditional ways of working, obstructed after 30 years of war. This is not going to be done by donations, by the way, but rather by “teaching them how to fish,” which is the best way. What is needed is the ability to refinance in order to bring back traditional society.

The Taliban have managed very brilliantly to kill the heads of the regions they wanted to overtake so that refugees do not have a fulcrum to return to. The repatriation of people to Afghanistan should be a priority and the global economic and financial crisis should not be an excuse to cut the development efforts and financing.

It is also very important for us to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Talk of an exit strategy implies that we have failed and must run, and hence creates further insecurity and pushes more people to become refugees. There must be a permanence. The people must have confidence that we are in Afghanistan to help rebuild and stabilize and that we will do what needs to be done when it is necessary.


We have to realize that there are huge sums of money involved. I believe that Iraq was never the global threat that it was portrayed as. After $3 trillion has been poured into the country, the world is weary. But there was a line that built up in Afghanistan—September 11 is proof of that—and that line has now moved into Pakistan. I was talking to the American Ambassador Anne Patterson in Karachi recently and said to her, “You know, we have not seen anything forthcoming for a very long time. In fact, you might be surprised to know that regarding the contract you signed with us to supply fuel to the American forces in Afghanistan, the payment which is now overdue by one year and is growing every day now amounts to close to $1 billion dollars. This means that we are actually paying for your war. You have not been able to repay us what you asked us to invest in it financially.” She was shocked because she did not know this. This is what it is all about—empty pledges, broken promises, and many things which never really arrive. This is the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

None of us are asking for handouts. As I have said to the U.S. Administration, “we do not need money; we need help and support in order to build capacity.” The U.N. Secretary General is doing a brilliant job with this. We are currently in an untenable situation. If we could get interest write-offs, this would introduce $7 billion into our economy. In this case, we would not need money from the international community. A lot of our debt has come in after the Afghan War. In fact, the build-up of the Pakistan debt pre-Afghan War and post-Afghan War is practically 100%. We had to bring in the money to carry the brunt and we carried it.

I also said to the U.S., “on cotton alone you have a favored nation status treaty with Dubai and Bangladesh. They are buying our cotton, adding value, and giving it to you. If you let us do it ourselves and send it to you directly, i.e. allow us to put all of the work in it, you would have another $7 billion coming in from there. That would be $14 billion in all.” Similarly, if you allow for the refinancing of 1% of the pension funds of the U.S. for one year, which you have done in many countries of the world, in that one year we would be able to get the kickoff that would bounce this economy back and the world would not have to pay for anything, as it is not paying now.


Many of your governments are asking, “What is happening in Waziristan? Why has Pakistan gone in? This is a quagmire. It is too early.” As I have said, “we have gone in on our own resources. We have asked you for three years to give us communication equipment, helicopters, modern weaponry, and basic things like night goggles for vision. None of this has materialized. But we have taken on Swat. And we are trying to get Waziristan.” This is a much more difficult situation, but the task needs to be done. We cannot wait for the world to come up with the answers now that we have assumed ownership.

We are going into it ourselves. There is an urgent need to bring an end to a vicious cycle of conflict. If nothing is done, the situation in Afghanistan and in its neighboring regions is going to affect the world sooner or later.

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